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Fond Memories of Bike Barnes
By Put Brown
Byron C. “Bike” Barnes, one of Granby’s most colorful men, died peacefully in his sleep on April 12, 2015. Bike, also know as “Biker,” was born almost 93 years ago in his family’s center-chimney house overlooking the West Branch of the Salmon Brook. He was a sure shot, a keen tracker and an experienced woodsman. He took delight in the natural wonders he found all around him, trapping and fishing on Tudor and Laura Holcomb’s Broad Hill Farm, and climbing to the top of the old Simplex factory before it was washed away in the 1955 flood. He got his name because he went everywhere on his bicycle, sometimes hitching a chain to the back of a truck to make the trip up the hill to West Granby or somewhere else easier, albeit more dangerous.
“Go over to the stream and bring me three trout for dinner,” his mother urged him from time to time, sure that he could do it. Cabbage was the usual side dish. His parents planted 400 head of them and bushels of turnips, which Bike ate like apples, to make it through the year.
One of his favorite activities was searching out wild honey. He had a little wooden trap that he baited with a bit of sugar water or honey. When he had caught a few bees, he released them one or two at a time and took careful notice of exactly where they were going. He knew that they would fly straight to the hive. After another 50 or 100 yards, he released another one and so it went until he could see the hive. Getting the honey might involve donning protective gear and climbing the tree or cutting it down if the hive was too high or if the tree was too rotten to take his weight.
Early in World War II, he joined the Navy and served on Liberty Ships in the Far East. “I went far away,” he said, “because I did not want to work in tobacco tents all my life.” In due course, he became a ship’s carpenter and, when the fighting ended, made that his life’s profession. He was on one ship for a while, came home when its voyage ended, lived in West Granby for a few months, went back to the union hall in New York City to find another berth, and shipped out again, usually with a crew that was entirely new to him. Thus it went for many years, back and forth, until he retired to his little cabin in the early 1970s. To him, the sea had become a desert, an endless expanse of uninhabitable territory, so it seemed only right that he call his landlocked retreat “Oasis.” There, he dammed a portion of the brook and built a seating area where he would watch trout tuck themselves under ledges in the running water.
Like so many veterans of his age, he did not talk much about his time in the Far East, but he did come back with a handful of medals, including one awarded for heroism under fire. He earned it for rescuing sailors from the independence-class aircraft carrier Princeton, which sank near his own ship in Leyte Gulf on October 24, 1944. A massive explosion ripped through the great warship, sending her to the bottom in a haze of smoke and oily water. Bike and some fellow sailors launched small boats and brought the lucky few they could find back to their own ship. John Fitzgerald Kennedy won the same medal for rescuing members of the crew of PT 109. For a while, the Navy thought that Bike, too, might have perished. The War Office telegraphed his parents with the dreaded news that he was “missing in action or dead.” A month or so later, he came into their kitchen, unannounced, and asked what was for dinner. He had not known of the telegram and assumed that they would expect him home in due course once his leave came through. It must have been a tearful reunion.
Bike thought of himself as a pioneer and a clever practitioner of traditional ways of doing things. When he worked on a barn, he used levers and heavy rocks, sometimes in confusing arrangements, one supporting another, while the “lazy” craftsmen he loved to ridicule might use hydraulic jacks. His projects were something to watch, but the inefficient way he preceded did not support a comfortable hourly rate. That suited him just fine and it mattered not that the place he so loved was, to almost everyone else who saw it, an uninhabitable shack. Things others would throw away, he repaired or coped with and, if something might later be repaired or used, he kept it.
It was a hermit’s existence until, by some magic, he and his childhood friend, Carol Guy, found one another and married. He came quickly under her spell, and she under his, to the surprise of those who knew them. They were thrilled with one another, just as they were, and walked everywhere hand-in-hand, until tragically, she died.
In time, roughing it at Oasis without Carol to help with the chores and to coax out a laugh when Bike preferred to growl, became too much for him and he moved to Stony Hill Village. He could still drive, so he brought a jumble of his treasures to his soon overcrowded two-room apartment. Getting to the chair in which he spent much of the day when he wasn’t sleeping required weaving through piles of things that he loved. He cooked for himself and bragged that he put everything into one pot. “One Pot Cooking,” he said, was the only way to do it.
When he could no longer drive, he rode a large tricycle fitted with a red flag atop a pole that waved back and forth as he pedaled. He went to the library, to the town hall, to Geisslers market and to McDonalds almost every day. Occasionally someone would drive him back to Oasis or to a Masons meeting in Simsbury. He was proud of his long, and apparently quite distinguished, history with that organization. Its core values, he believed, were the traditional ones he had grown up with.
He grew suspicious of those he did not know or of people he thought might be taking advantage of him, but was fiercely loyal to those he considered to be his friends. As keeper of traditional ways of doing things, he delighted in sharing his stories and opinions with others. He also “taught history” as he saw it to groups of senior citizens and serenaded them with the accordion that he learned to play while he was in the Merchant Marines.
Occasionally, he assembled odds and ends from his collection of artifacts, especially ones whose use was not obvious at first glance, such as his bee trap, and displayed them at the library. He donated some of the things he thought most interesting to the Salmon Brook Historical Society.
His views of how things were once done may not always square with what the history books say, but his stories always fascinated those who heard them. He had little patience with people he disagreed with and, in his final years, was too quick to suspect others of sinister motives, but—to use a too-trite term—he was the “genuine article.” When he saw someone he considered to be a friend, his eyes shone with obvious delight as he began a story he may already have told. It may have sounded like a whopper, but he never knowingly told a lie. Always, there was truth in his tales and charm in the teller.